Race Is Not

Race is a term that is used widely in North America, but it is often misunderstood to be a natural or biologically based category. It is not.
— Muckle, González, and Camp, Through the Lens of Anthropology 2022, 102

In Intro to Anthro 2022 after discussing Homo species we finish reading chapter 4. At the end, Muckle, González, and Camp state that “race is not a valid biological concept” (104).

This class was the end of our biological anthropology unit. We moved on to archaeology with Stone Tools.


Image credit: Systemic racism can get under our skin and into our genes by Connie J. Mulligan (2021)

Partial Transcript: Race is Not

Today we’re talking about ideas about evolution: the idea of race or subspecies. We will end by talking about racism and the biological consequences of racism.

At the end of the Muckle, González, and Camp chapter, wrapping up human biological evolution, they spend a couple of paragraphs–maybe even a couple of pages–on the idea of race as a biological category. They assert that it has no biological validity as a categorization of human beings. Which is true. But in my opinion, they make that assertion a little too quickly, in the sense that they could go a bit more into the evidence

Now maybe we don’t need them to go into the evidence because it is complicated, but I want to spend some time going into more depth given that this is our last Biological Anthropology unit-class. So we’re going a little more in depth about the biological evidence of why people in science, not just anthropologists, have made this assertion about race and racial categories.

I want to start back with the idea of evolution. Ever since the idea of evolution came out, people have been trying to use it to justify or to explain the categorizations of race that existed before evolution. These categories are not that old, as we’ll find out, but people have always tried to harness the ideas of evolution to emerging ideas about racial categorization.

People wanted to justify the racist structure of society that was in place at the time these evolutionary ideas emerged. Whenever we talk about evolution we need to think about this history, and the attempts that people made to link it to race. For many people, they believe that studying evolution gives them insights into the true categorizations of race.

To do this I want to go back to a slide that we saw when we were thinking about the idea of evolution as it emerged, before the 19th century, but as it was consolidated under Darwin with the mechanism of natural selection: that the Great Chain of Being, this idea that there was perfection and ascent between the imperfect animals, leading up to the perfect man. I’m using the term “man” as a relic of the 19th century, because there was a whole sexist part of this thing going on too, which we’ll talk about a bit more in the next section on archaeology. I’m just putting it in there because those were the terms of the time. That’s what they were talking about.

We have this idea about evolution being progressive, joining links on an ascending Great Chain of Being.

I also talked about what people thought about others in terms of the ascendancy from the Primitive or Savagery through Barbarism to the Civilized. We talk about Lewis Henry Morgan and his book _Ancient Society: Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization_.

If you join these two ideas together, which is what people started to do, there’s a unilinear theory of biological evolution, which got joined to a unilinear theory of social evolution. If you put these two things together you have an incorrect evolutionary idea combined with some incorrect ethnocentric hierarchies, and you get what has been called “scientific racism” or the idea that there is an ascendancy from the animal forms through man. You have primitive man who then ascends into civilized man. as I said I’m using the term “man” because it’s a relic of its time. there is both a racist element and a sexist element to this explanation.

Now, I’ve put the term “scientific” in quotes because there’s nothing scientific about this scheme. It’s an incorrect scheme in terms of its ideas about evolution. That’s one of the reasons I was concerned with saying “goodbye” to the Great Chain of Being. It’s also incorrect in its ideas about everyone being on a ladder from Savage to Barbaric to Civilized.

I would also say that although this scheme justified some very bad things that people did in the world, it probably wasn’t a causal scheme. That is to say, the structure of society had already been put in place by the time these ideas were joined together in what is called scientific racism.

Darwin, for example, although he was suspicious of ideas about classifications of race, very much believed–especially in his book _The Descent of Man_–that there was a smaller gap between what he called the Man of the Primitive Man and the Animal than there was between Primitive Man and Civilized. It was an awful assertion to make, but it was something that a lot of people believed.

Now, if you remember, Darwin shared his ideas about natural selection with Alfred Russell Wallace, but Alfred Russell Wallace disappears from the scientific account of how evolution occurs. I talked about how Darwin had been researching it more, and he wrote better books, and longer books, and he had more analysis, but one of the reasons that Alfred Russell Wallace has disappeared is because Wallace–unlike Darwin–was very familiar with people who lived in the Tropics and were designated by these terms as “primitives.” Wallace knew they were a lot smarter and capable than people like Darwin knew, because Darwin spent most of his time in London. So, Wallace couldn’t reconcile this scheme, and he proposed instead that God had created the brains of all people. For this idea he was banished from the evolutionary textbooks, because it was seen as a creationist idea, but what he was really trying to do was reconcile the fact that he knew that the people who were being called primitive or savage were in fact as intelligent and capable as the “civilized.”

We get this very toxic combination of ideas that are joined together in the late 19th century. This is also the time that anthropology is being born. Anthropology is born during a time of European colonialism, and the expansion of European and North American empires throughout the world.

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